Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two Sides of Cynicism in King of New York

King of New York: Christopher Walken as Frank White, recently incarcerated drug lord returning to the streets... a powerful role for Chris W. He's a tall, almost monstrous figure, shockingly white with piercing blue eyes, and his voice is ice cold. "... my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse." Indeed, Frank doesn't seem to feel anything but grim, purposeful determination, occasionally punctuated by a violent outburst. However, this coldness belies his more complex role in the course of the film, which is an ambiguous twist of violent criminal and icon of redemption.

King of New York, like any story of crime and pursuit, is about an asymmetrical moral universe. We're asked to see through both sides of the glass... on one side, the criminals live in a purely opportunistic world, and if they have any ethics at all, it's the ones they've hand-picked for themselves. Their criteria for success is loose: they want power, but ultimately, they just want to survive and stay on the outside. On the other side, the cops instigate and infiltrate. Burdened with the codes of law and bureaucracy, they pursue a purely adversarial goal: to get the criminals out of New York City, and to get people like Frank White off the streets.

Frank White is a man with a code. It may be twisted, a janky justification for his power-hunger, but at the very least he plays by a set of rules: the laws of nature and karma, that a life by the gun leads to death by the gun. Frank's code manifests in other ways, too... he seems to acknowledge the difficult lives of the people he exploits, and (at least according to him) he tries to be a better ruler than his slain competitors. He is no Robin Hood, but at the very least, cruelty and murder are just his tools, and not his ends. In this, he contrasts subtlely with his underlings, who seem to take a juvenile joy in violence (Jimmy), or at worst, who are prone to betrayal and greed.

Roy the aging lawman is Frank's mirror image in a number of these respects. He alone among his fellow cops sees the importance of operating within the strictures of law and police procedure. He is a patient adversary, conflicted about his job and his methods, but always vigilant and committed to his job. When he asks Dennis, "Are you going to kill everyone you can't arrest?" it may seem like resignation at first, but you should note an echo of faith in the in the system to take these monsters down with method and principle. Roy is willing to do whatever is necessary to stay within the bounds of the law, the system that he serves. As he demonstrates in the course of the movie, he is also willing to travel to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of his quarry.

Cynicism is a way of protecting yourself from complete failure by projecting that failure out onto the world: "If things aren't how I wanted them to be, it's because of the world, not because of me." Dennis is the great cynic of King of New York. He allows his frustration with the system to infect his methods, and at last, he hangs up the standard of decency to chase after victory and self-satisfaction. In this, he is an important foil for Roy, who always confronts Frank diplomatically, according to the constraints of law and self-respect. In this, Roy is a rare kind of hero: he would rather accept defeat than become a cynical victor.

In this respect, Roy reminds me of some other senior law enforcement officers of cinema. In their AV Club essay on King of New York, The Onion writers compare him to Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men. I can see where they're coming from, but he may be more akin to the noble Detective Prendergast from Falling Down, another gritty film par excellence. These officers of the law, representing the old ways in a vicious new world, have a healthy fear of death and uselessness, and no hatred for their enemies. They both seem to impart their wisdom largely in the form of questions: Roy's "You expected to get away with killing all those people? Who made you judge and jury?" to Prendergast's "Is that what this is about? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? You're mad because they lied to you?"

The "grizzled cop" staple leads us to see other similarities between King of New York and Falling Down. Both films primarily follow a criminal with a streak of moral indignation, and both films evoke visions of a city through these criminals' eyes. Both Bill Foster and Frank White are responding to a viciousness in the world that they just can't tolerate, and even as they rage against it, they come to reflect it. But Roy and Prendergast, the guardians of order, are experienced enough to see through their adversaries' twisted vision. They've been through the valley of cynicism, and they've come out on the other side, and from there they can see that Frank White and Bill "D-FENS" Foster aren't transcendent symbols of a fallen world... they're just sick, broken bastards who have to be taken out of circulation. Roy and Prendergast are two great realist-idealists of the crime genre.

Frank is ruthless, but in a strange way, he too is an idealist. In a romantic mano-a-mano showdown with Roy, Frank justifies himself and articulates his dubious code, which gives him a sense of legitimacy. His attempts to fund a hospital are further expressions of his self-contradictory worldview: a life of violence is less of an abomination if it is tempered with mercy. This makes Frank unique among the criminals we come across, as he is eager to point out. Artie Clay is a crass racist with no respect for cooperation; Larry Wong is a cold businessman who (according to Frank) exploits Asian refugees. Even Jimmy Jump has given up on respect or dignity; he lives by the law of hedonism, acting on whatever immediate impulse overtakes him.

It is this idealism, a beacon of hope in a cynical New York City, that allows us to sympathize with both Frank and Roy at the same time. The final confrontation and resolution of the film is tragic, but necessary... with the failure and victory of two protagonists tightly entangled, imploding on the reign of a dubious King.

Grittiness: 9

Like Taxi Driver, King of New York is all about the grime and grit of crime in the city. Frank White lives a high life, but he's never afraid to handle a gun, and he's an active citizen of the underworld, negotiating dark clubs and backrooms where narcotic and sexual pleasure are always being consumed. These cops and criminals express themselves with piss, spit, and bullets; these gunfights are sudden explosions of blood and shattered glass on the sidewalks of a degenerate New York City.

1 comment:

Bobby Wise said...

A classic hip-hop film. Glad you wrote about it! I never thought about a connection to "Falling Down," though I think that is another film that deserves a lot more critical attention.